To brush the flipper of a creature; to see the face of a Creator.

September 19th, 2014, 6pm

‘A whale of a time’ suggests something frivolous, like a party or a theme park. There was none of that in the whales that we encountered. There was only grace, majesty, and power. There was sublimity.

The calf was about 6m in length. The mother was at least twice as long.

mother and calf

We got our money’s worth on the first day: a playful calf. Unlike our second day, when we had to chase after the whales and quickly enter the water to glimpse them swimming past us, this calf remained in the same area. He approached us. Then he circled us. And then he showed off.

He twirled in the water, breached the surface, swam at us, then avoided us. At one instance, his tail swept past my face so closely that all I could see was bubbles in the water. At another, the calf’s flipper ‘brushed’ against our guide. Our guide later described it as a ‘whack’.

To say that humpback whales are larger than us is trite. But to physically encounter their vastness – that is an experience.

Why is this experience so captivating? Alain de Botton asks this same question and offers an explanation: “One answer is that not everything that is more powerful than us must always be hateful to us… We are humiliated by what is powerful and mean but awed by what is powerful and noble.”

The allure of swimming with whales is that you are swimming with them. You are not looking at them from outside an enclosure. You are not watching them breach the surface from the safety of a boat (though even that already is an awesome sight).

You are in the water with these creatures, face to face with their mass and their puissance. You feel the apprehension as they swim towards you. You feel the thrill when you suddenly realise they are directly beneath you. You understand something – however little, however limited – about whales and about creation and about grandeur when you look them in the eye.

looking into a whale’s eye

Before I set off for this trip, I told myself: if I could not see God in the extraordinary, then I would just have to content myself finding Him in the ordinary. At that time, it seemed like I was settling. But while chatting with God on the boat, feeling the wind in my face and soaking in the island greens and marine blues, maybe, just maybe, it felt a little more like rehabilitation.

Asked to explain why Job has been made to suffer even though he has been good, God draws Job’s attention to the mighty phenomena of nature. Do not be surprised that things have not gone your way, He declares: the universe is greater than you. - Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

(Photo credits: Joyce)

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